How Does Classical Conditioning Work?

How Does Classical Conditioning Work?

This is my friend Sutton, who volunteered for a completely harmless experiment in classical conditioning.

How Does Classical Conditioning Work?

Let's start by poking him in the eye.

Sutton Being Poked in The Eye with a Pencil

Oh! He didn't like that. Look at the way his eye is all twitchy and red.

Sutton is Upset

Actually, maybe it's not so surprising that Sutton's upset. Prodding his vitreous humour caused him great pain—and primal responses like pain and hunger are excellent fodder for classical conditioning.

Let's poke Sutton in the eye again.

Sutton Now Has a Pencil Stabbed in His Eye

Look at his silly little face. He's getting quite angry, isn't he?

Pink Eye

Each gouge to the eye is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), where stimuli are things we can sense in our environment because they stimulate a response.

At this stage, flinching in pain is an unconditioned response (UCR), produced automatically as part of an emotional or physical reaction.

An Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) Creates an Unconditioned Response (UCR)

Ok, enough messing around. Let's start the experiment.

Today we're going to classically condition Sutton. Soon, he'll react to a perfectly harmless object as if it's going to cause him great pain.

First we need our neutral stimulus (NS). This can be any specific trigger, like a sight or a sound, that currently doesn't provoke any reaction.

Ah—an air horn! Great suggestion.

A Neutral Stimulus (NS) Creates a Neutral Response (NR)

(Actually, it's not that great, because an air horn isn't exactly a benign sound. But since air horns are inherently funny, let's use this anyway and just pretend that Sutton currently has zero innate reactions to air horns.)

If you want a more appropriate neutral stimulus for your classical conditioning experiment, consider using a ringtone on your phone. This innocent sound will soon become a powerful trigger.

Now let's poke Sutton in the eye and simultaneously blast him with the air horn.

Classical Conditioning: Pairing Stimuli

This is called the acquisition phase of classical conditioning. It involves pairing our unconditioned stimulus (a pencil to the eye) with our neutral stimulus (the sound of an air horn).

At first, we just see the same unconditioned flinch response. The air horn seems rather frivolous.

How Classical Conditioning Works Illustration

So we repeat the acquisition process a few more times. After all, good science means getting hard results.

Classical Conditioning Cartoon

Soon, Sutton forms a powerful association in his mind. We can lose the pencil altogether now. The sound of the air horn alone causes him to anticipate acute physical pain, and even pre-emptively flinch at nothing!

Classical conditioning works by leveraging our unconscious pattern-finding instincts. Here, we've created a pattern of association that triggers the fight-or-flight response.

The sound or the air horn now produces a spike in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a solid shot of cortisol. It's become a conditioned stimulus (CS) that produces an irrational conditioned response (CR).

A Conditioned Stimulus (CS) Creates a Conditioned Response (CR)

Generalisation means that any horn-like sound, sight, or suggestion now makes Sutton mad. He can't go to sports events anymore, and I can't turn up at his house unannounced without having to prove I don't have an air horn.

But hang on. Won't Sutton eventually remember that air horns in isolation don't produce stabbing pains in his eyes? What happens then?

This is known as the extinction phase. All our hard work will be undone, and Sutton will once again have a perfectly normal reaction to air horns.

Classical Conditioning at Work

If we do nothing more, the conditioned response will fade away altogether. So we'll be sure to reinforce the association with one unholy horn blast and a solid poke in the eye. One clean exposure will be all it takes to restore the effect of our classical conditioning.

Hooray! Sutton is inappropriately afraid of air horns once more. This is the power of classical conditioning; try it on a friend near you today. For science!

For Science!
Rebecca Casale Author Bio

Rebecca Casale is a science blogger based in Auckland. If you like her content, please share it with your friends. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?